When Jack was born, Booker T. Washington was still the principal at Tuskegee Institute. Bernice & Corrine came along later; by the time of their births, Lyndon B. Johnson had already been elected to the House of Representatives. Carrie is the youngster of the group: she was born just as Rosa Parks became active in the NAACP.
None of these senior adults grew up around people who looked much different than they did. And, even if Bernice & Corrine had lived closed together, it’s unlikely that they would have become lifelong friends. There were too many obstacles, too many barriers. Well. It just wasn’t done.
But today things are a little different. Every Thursday at the Senior Opportunity Center in Asheville these folk and others join my exercise class: Jack, a 97 year old white guy who walks with two canes; Bernice and Carrie, African American grandmothers; and Corrine, a cheerful white lady who lives with her kids.
Really, they should not get along. They should not be friends. Their not-so-shared histories should demand a certain distance.
And believe me: it wasn’t easy at first. A senior center in West Asheville closed. Participants who chose to continue in the program had to go to the downtown location, taking the bus further than they had travelled previously. These West Asheville members, almost to a person, are white. Downtown participants come from lots of different backgrounds; many are African American. In the beginning, when I would come to teach fitness, the West Asheville folk would sit on one side of the semi-circle and the downtown folk on the other: divided by a visible color line that would have made Jim Crow proud.
But then one day Carrie happened to be sitting beside a white woman named Mae, each on their own side of course, but right next to each other. Carrie said something funny and Mae laughed. Or was it the other way around? I forget. But they laughed. Together. So the next week, they made a point to sit beside each other again.
And the line began to fade.
They’ve been together three years now, those two groups. In a recent class, Jack sat beside Bernice who sat beside Carrie. Yao—a Chinese lady who speaks only scant English—sat on his other side, next to Corrine. No one seemed to realize that they weren’t supposed to be friends, these relics from a different time. No one seemed to remember that they had once been on opposite sides—and not just in my class either. In fact, no one seemed to notice race, creed, or heritage at all.
“Arms up reaching side to side,” I instructed the class. “Now reach over and give your neighbor a pat on the back.”
And they did. Without hesitation.
May God Almighty bless you . . .
until you become a community of peoples.
(One of my favorite posts of all time, this one was first published in 2011.)
"I invite everyone to choose forgiveness rather than division, teamwork over personal ambition."
This from 2013 demanded another run. It's deja vu all over again!
10 Things I’ve learned (or been reminded of) during the government shutdown:
Dr. Sheri Adams led a class on Civil Rights and Religion in May 2009 which included a tour of key historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement. One of the places we visited was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage where Martin and Coretta King lived during their ministry there. This story comes from that experience.
I am standing in my Grandmother Martin’s kitchen. It’s true: Grandmama died nearly 14 years ago and her kitchen was dismantled long before that, but I’m telling you, this is her kitchen.
Her resin dishes are laid out on the Formica table ready for supper—though I remember them being a pale pink, not this mint green. The table setting includes a bowl of pecans. Granddaddy often collected pecans from the yard to be cracked after supper; and for the record, he and Grandmama called them “pea ca’ns,” giving equal emphasis to the first two syllables and letting the third one slip in for free. (Only those uppity carpet-baggers from the North used the term “puhcahns,” spitting out the “puh” just to get to the “cahns.”)
The ceramic napkin holder is new to me. I’m not surprised it’s in her kitchen though since it has strawberries on it; Grandmama did love her strawberries. Her oven, probably still hot from cooking biscuits, looks like it always did and her Frigidaire does too. The coffee pot—a percolator—has not changed at all. The kitchen shelves hold the usual, everything from Jewel® shortening to HotShot® bug killer in the pump and shoot tin can. Granddaddy murdered many a 6-legged intruder with that beastly weapon.
“’Get out of town within three days,’ the caller threatened, ‘or you’ll be sorry,’” The docent’s words drew me out of my reverie. “Martin knew this threat was different.”
“The call had awakened him and he could not get back to sleep, so he left Coretta and newborn Yolanda asleep, and came in here to the kitchen.”
This kitchen: this kitchen that looked so much like my Grandmama’s.
“He made himself a cup of coffee, but says he never even took a sip. And he sat down at his kitchen table. By the way, most everything in the parsonage here is authentic; however, this table is not the one that was here at that time, but it is very much like the one Martin sat at that night.”
(And it’s very much like the one my Grandparents sat at in their kitchen in Georgia during those very same years.)
My divinity school colleagues—19 of us counting students and professors—crowded into the parsonage's tiny kitchen and stood around the little table. Studying civil rights and religion, we were travelling to significant sites in the South, learning more about faith’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Coming to the end of this tour of the Birmingham parsonage of Martin Luther King, Jr., we found ourselves spellbound by our guide’s retelling of the famous “kitchen table epiphany.”
“Martin sat here, full of despair. He thought of Coretta, and baby Yolanda. He thought of all the threatening phone calls. He thought of all he had to lose. He sat here in the wee hours of that morning and cried out to God, confessing his own doubts, his own weaknesses.
“When Martin recalled the story, he said it was at that moment of confession that he heard the voice of Jesus say to him, ‘Martin Luther stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ He heard Jesus tell him he would never be alone, no matter what.” The docent looked up to heaven, lifting her hands as if in thanksgiving. Then looking down, she shook her head slowly.
“And he didn’t give up. Not even three days later when his house, this house, was bombed. You see Martin was right: the call he got that night was more than just a prank. It was a real threat. What a blessing that Martin had just reaffirmed his calling and his faith right here in this kitchen.”
This Montgomery, Alabama kitchen that belonged to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American Baptist preacher and the leader of the Civil Rights movement. This kitchen:so familiar to me that it could have been in the Albany, Georgia home of Mrs. Mabel Louise Martin, my white, Southern Baptist grandmama.
1. I can worship however I want. Or not. Church. I love it.
2. Public School. I take it for granted (I do) that my kids have gotten to go to school in their own neighborhood for the cost of supplies and minimal fees.
3. Washington, DC. Love that city: the restaurants, the museums, the history.
4. Rosa Parks. What a woman. Proud to say we share the same nationality.
5. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because of this legislation, I have friends and mentors I never would have known. Thanks be to God.
7. The Gettysburg Address. These few words carry a magnitude of meaning. Also the economy of verbiage taught me more about writing than any class ever has.
8. Public Libraries. Ahhh. Where memories are made and dreams are formed.
9. Blue Ridge Mountains. Home.
10. Gardner-Webb University. My third and favorite alma mater.
11. The South. Flawed though it may be, it is still my home. And I love it.
12. Free Speech. I have a lot to say.
13. Roger Williams. He was nearly 30 when he arrived on North American shores, but what he did for religious freedom in America transformed our future.
15. Jury Duty. I've got opinions.
16. Voting. Lots of opinions . . .
17. Fourth of July Fireworks. Caveat: OFFICIAL 4th of July fireworks. All the booms and explosions in backyards for the week preceding the actual event drive me kind of crazy--mainly because my beloved Charlie (may he rest in peace) was terrified of them. But the actual celebrations? The official, safe, sanctioned productions? Oh I love those. So beautiful, so exciting, so fun.
18. Denzel Washington. I like beauty. I just do.
What is something you love about America?
A lot of folk fought and died for this right we enjoy. Make sure you thank them by voting today!
Published initially on: Nov 10, 2012
Top 10: Things I Love about Elections in the USA
America. It really is beautiful, isn't it?
“What’s that,” he said, adjusting his Jansport® backpack. Nathaniel, a first semester community college student, had a solid A in my class due to his impeccable study habits and his professional approach to college. That day, he looked no different than he had every other time I’d seen him—like a stereotypical Ivy League co-ed: short hair, styled fashionably; wire-rimmed glasses; starched button-down shirt; dark blue jeans with a leather belt; and dressy shoes--Sperry’s® I think.
The question I had for Nathaniel arose from a conversation I’d had with an acquaintance the previous day. That month in our community, a 19 year old African American man was shot and killed by a police officer. The young man was allegedly breaking and entering, and officers believed he was carrying a gun. (When he was shot, he was in fact unarmed, though he had been carrying a weapon earlier. You can read the full story here.) This shooting death hit close to home: AJ Marion had graduated with my oldest daughter. He’d been a promising football star and by all accounts, just a really nice guy. Undoubtedly, he’d made some poor choices along the way; most assumed though, that he’d right himself sooner rather than later.
Anyway, I’d seen a mom I knew from my kids’ elementary school days. Her son was about the same age as my kids; I asked if he’d been friends with AJ. She explained that indeed her family and AJ’s were connected through church and family ties and that they were all shocked and devastated.
We talked for a while about the prevalence of police shootings of African American men and then she said, “Oh yeah, I tell my son that if I ever catch him out without his id, I’ll take him into the police station myself.”
Huh? “Um, say what now?”
She repeated herself, but it didn’t help. I had no idea what she meant.
“You don’t make sure your son has his id when he goes out?” she asked me.
“Well, I mean, I tell him not to drive without his license if that’s what you mean.”
“No. What I mean is a police officer can detain anyone and ask for identification. If you don’t have your id, they can take you in for questioning.”
“Absolutely. So I just randomly ask my son for his id just to make sure he always has it with him,” she laughed a little cuz-I’m-the-mama-that’s-why laugh.
“Oh my gosh. I had no idea,” I said, as realization dawned. “I guess I didn’t have to know though. My son is white.”
She nodded. “Mothers of African American boys live in fear of our sons being wrongly accused or worse.”
Heartbreaking. Unbelievable. And in 21st century USA.
I thought of my student Nathaniel. Could this be his reality as well?
“It’s a nosy question, Nathaniel, so feel free to tell me to get out of your business.”
“Sure Ms. Aileen, what’s up?” (Despite the fact that I invite my students to call me by my first name, Nathaniel never did, opting for a title he deemed more respectful.)
“Have you been stopped by police and asked for your id?”
He laughed, “Today?”
“Ms. Aileen, I’m stopped several times a week, sometimes every day. I get stopped walking from my car or downtown. I’ve even been stopped walking away from this campus. If I have a ball cap or hoodie on, I know I’ll be stopped.” He patted the pocket of his designer jeans. “Got my id right here.”
“This is outrageous!” I said, “How do you not stay furious every single day?”
“Oh, I used to,” Nathaniel said, shaking his head. “But it really doesn’t help to get angry about it. I just figure I’ll keep working on myself, keep going to college, keep moving up, ya know?”
Actually, I didn’t know. I could not imagine how hard it would be to keep a positive attitude while facing such blatant discrimination. “You’re a fine man Nathaniel. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. I had no idea.”
“Thanks. It’s all good. Gotta go to class. See ya Thursday.”
My son, a 6’3”, 18 year old who regularly wears hoodies and ball caps, has never been stopped by the police. Never.
Nathaniel, a 5’8” twenty something who looks for all the world like a future lawyer, doctor, or banker gets stopped weekly, at least.
It’s not all good. Not even close.
*Nathaniel's name has been changed to protect his identity. I asked my daughter to give me a man's name that sounded like a doctor's name. This is what she chose.Still think racism doesn't really exist? Take a look at this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti5ZFmglzV4 Want to know how big the problem is? Then watch this video: http://youtu.be/tkpUyB2xgTM
July 16, 2013
It really, no kidding, could have been my son.
My 17 year old boy, broader than many and taller than most, must seem imposing, threatening even. I know this because a few weeks ago, when my son was in a place he had every right to be, doing something he’d been asked to do by a responsible adult, he raised the hackles of a concerned neighbor (I’ll call that person Watchdog). It was dark, and Watchdog caught sight of my boy and panicked. Rather than going home and calling 911 though, Watchdog approached and confronted my son, warning him to leave the property. Luckily, my husband happened to be with our son that night; he addressed Watchdog, reassuring that all was well.
The next day, Watchdog (who is actually a nice person who seems to have only the best intentions at heart) expressed to the homeowner—the one who had hired my boy in the first place—concern about the events of the previous night. After implying ownership of a firearm, Watchdog then said something like, “This could have turned out very differently, perhaps even tragically.”
It didn’t though. My son wasn’t shot. Watchdog didn’t have a weapon on him at the time, so there’s that. Plus my son is Caucasian, the same ethnicity as Watchdog. And we’ll never know what could have happened that night if circumstances had been different. I can’t help but wonder though.
Consider the findings reported in this video. It’s a clip from the television program What Would You Do with John Quinones. This show creates public scenarios involving moral or ethical issues; hidden video cameras record the reactions of observers. In this clip, two different actors hired by the show attempt to steal a bicycle in a public park. Both men—one Caucasian, one African American—are similarly attired, appearing much like my son would have looked the night Watchdog challenged him.
Here’s what you’ll see when you watch the video. The white male is occasionally questioned, but most people walk by and say nothing. The black male, though? He’s on the verge of being attacked. Witnesses become downright aggressive. People are snapping pictures, taking video, snatching his tools. Are you kidding me? It’s unbelievable. Or it would be, if it were not so frighteningly common.
Racism. It’s pervasive and it's deadly. See, no matter what you think about the recent verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, two things will not be changed: 17 year old student Trayvon Martin will still be dead, and Zimmerman will still be free. What can be changed though, is the mindset that led to this tragedy in the first place. Let’s put ourselves on trial. Let’s ask ourselves convicting questions.
And if we find ourselves guilty on any counts of racism, let’s sentence ourselves to life with a new attitude—an attitude of mercy, love, and grace. Now that’s justice.
. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8 NRSV
Like many crises, the whole thing came down to a good pair of shoes. You see, the Confederacy was running out of everything, shoes included. Remember, theirs was an agrarian society. Industry and manufacturing were situated primarily in the North, so shoes were pretty hard to come by down South.
It was on account of this shoe shortage that the Confederate soldiers ventured into Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. While there, Johnny Reb bumped into Billy Yank; the ensuing scuffle led to a fight that led to a battle that would go on for three days.
The fighting was relentless. By the evening of July 3, casualties exceeded 45,000. The next day, both sides rested; on July 5th, Confederate General Robert E. Lee retreated with weary, disheartened troops who still lacked shoes with intact soles.
Over the next few months, plans were made to establish an official military graveyard on the Gettysburg battlefield. On November 19, 1863, citizens gathered for a ceremony to dedicate that cemetery. The main speaker spoke for two hours (his name was Edward Everett; history has forgotten his words) and then President Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most memorable speeches in our nation’s history.
I can only imagine how exhausted Lincoln was. Sure, the war had turned and victory seemed within reach. But the country was still divided, while countless soldiers—many of them younger than his sons—gave their lives for the sake of the Union.
The Gettysburg Address was less than 300 words and took only a few minutes to deliver. Its message, though is timeless, and much deeper than it is long.
Today is the 150th anniversary of the last day of the battle. You can read the Gettysburg Address in a post I wrote a few years ago on Lincoln's birthday. Take the time. You'll be glad you did.
Sometimes I pull older posts back up and promote them to new readers. I was about to do that with this four-year-old post, so I thought I would add a picture. I googled "Trailways bus, Georgia, Country roads." In seconds (amazing!) I had pages of photos that matched or almost matched my search criteria. Though I hadn't put the date in the search string, the pictures were mostly illustrating events from the forties, fifties, or sixties. Perfect! Except not really. The top ten or fifteen returns did include buses on country roads; the problem was, each depicted some form of violence: buses burning, riots, people being beaten. Hideous.
And from the midst of all that comes this story about my daddy, on a back road in Georgia, riding a Trailways™ bus.
It wasn’t something a boy got to do every day you know: taking the Trailways™ bus from his home to his grandparents' place 20 miles away--especially by himself, seeing as he had half a dozen siblings who would have loved to have joined him. But that’s just what my daddy did one Georgia day some decades ago.
“Was it 1947 or 1948?” Daddy asked himself, folding his napkin in half, then into fourths, then eighths before unfolding it only to repeat the process, this time on the diagonal. “Well let’s see. I know I’d been baptized.”
Daddy seemed to wander back through his memories arriving at the little Baptist church over the railroad track and down the road from his family home. “I was nine when I made my profession of faith.” (We all knew that. Daddy loved telling that story.) “But it took more than a year for the preacher to get around to my baptism.” Baptisms only happened in the summer when the creek was warm enough, but why Daddy didn’t receive the sacrament the summer after he walked the aisle is a mystery. “I reckon it was 47 or maybe it was 48,” Daddy declared this time with conviction. “Whichever it was, it was after I’d been baptized,” Daddy said, certain. “‘Cause I know I’d been baptized.”
So back in 1947 (or 1948) Daddy, soaped up and shiny for his special trip, boarded the bus. The bus was nearly full. Back then, segregation was law, and down in the Deep South Jim Crow ruled the buses with at least as much authority as he had in the classrooms. Daddy, belongings in hand, worked his way from the front toward the back of the bus looking for a seat, finally finding an empty one just inside the Whites Only section. He plopped his things down and took his seat. The bus started up again, chugging on toward Daddy’s adventure.
In those days, at least in rural Georgia, bus drivers would pull over occasionally to pick up riders. You see, folks needing a ride would wait along the side of the road, and then they’d pay a pro-rated fare for their truncated trip. Daddy looked out the windows, watching the Georgia terrain ease past. In the distance, Daddy could see a woman waiting. A child was with her: a very young child. The woman’s arms full of bundles, she still managed to keep hold of the child’s hand. The bus inched closer. Daddy’s view sharpened. The woman was black.
Daddy glanced over his shoulder. The section behind him, the seats designated for this mother and child, were all taken. The bus bumped to a stop. The woman, shifting her load to access her fare while still holding tight to her little one, climbed aboard.
“I remember deliberating on that thing, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I.’” Meanwhile, the woman got closer. “I’d been taught to respect our elders; she was an adult and I was just a kid. But mostly,” Daddy’s voice caught. He cleared his throat and gazed above our heads, “Well, I had the Holy Spirit. Because of that, I was guided, prompted. I knew what was right.”
As the woman got to his row, Daddy met her eyes. Picking up his things, he slid over to the window seat, leaving the aisle seat free. Her expression hardly changed as she placed her things on the floor, lifted her child into her lap, and took her seat: a seat in the White’s Only section of the bus, a seat given her by my daddy who was just an 11 year old boy (or maybe 12).
And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us . . . Acts 15:8 NRSV